Monday Read Option: New England Patriots' Miracle Comeback, Unicorns, and Saved Time in the Middle

By Jason Lisk

The New England Patriots came from behind with a miracle play in the final seconds, as Tom Brady hit Kenbrell Thompkins in the corner of the end zone. Scott Zolak, the Patriots announcer, missed his calling as someone who could inspire a Nirvana song, breaking out “Unicorns, Show Ponies, Where’s the Beef?” in the excitement of the touchdown call. Tom Brady had not thrown a touchdown in 84 pass attempts, and after almost breaking Drew Brees’ recent consecutive games  touchdown mark, had gone almost two games without one.  The Patriots were stopped on fourth down and Tom Brady was intercepted in the final three minutes of the game.

So how did we get to the point where Rob Ryan was shaking his head in disgust and an announcer was invoking an old lady from an 80’s fast food commercial in an unrehearsed fit of euphoria? How did we go from Tom Brady being left hanging for not being able to throw touchdowns anymore to everyone wanting to give him high fives? After Drew Brees hit Kenny Stills for an improbable touchdown with three and a half minutes left to give New Orleans a one point lead, and Tom Brady came back on the field, there were a blistering 22 plays run, including a field goal, a kickoff, and two punts.

Let’s review the story of the Patriots rally . . . in reverse.

The touchdown came right after the Patriots had spiked the ball, with 10 seconds remaining. They had two shots to the end zone. They needed just one. It’s hard to tell from the television shots–it was probably several vertical routes to stretch the Saints across the end zone, and allow Brady to pick the matchup he wanted. He chose well, and Kenbrell Thompkins made the catch over Jabari Greer one on one. At the time he let it go, though, Greer was in excellent position and it was just putting it up and hoping your guy makes a play.

Getting to that point where the fates were put in one leap involved several factors, from luck, to making luck possible with precision.

That play was preceded by a spike, and before that, a fourth down conversion to one of the many new faces in New England, and one that many people thought would never play again: Austin Collie. On fourth and four yards to go, Brady hit Collie out of the slot on an out route, with the outside receiver clearing deep. Collie was able to beat Malcolm Jenkins in the head to head matchup to create just enough separation. Also a factor? What happened before. The Saints could not just sit on the line to gain, and risk one of the slot receivers breaking it up the field for the touchdown. They were in Cover-2 on 4th and 4. with a four man rush, and wary of the deeper pass.

Edelman’s Near Misses

The previous two plays before the fourth down conversion were within a whisper of both being big gains. In both, Edelman got matched against a linebacker, and almost made the Saints pay. The first definitely comes against a single high safety and a 5 man rush, where Brady just gets enough pressure to throw the pass off slightly, but still almost makes the Saints pay. The second, it’s harder to tell where the coverage is, and the safety does break it up with the hit after Edelman appears to make the catch.

If I Could Save Time in the Middle

You want to know where the game was ultimately won? How quickly New England went down the field when they got their third life of the last three minutes. Moving so precisely through the middle of the field allowed the Patriots to have a shot at the end zone and a very comfortable throw to Thompkins.

New England got the ball with 1:13 left, no timeouts, at their own 24 yard line. Thirty-eight real time (and game time) seconds later, they were at the New Orleans’ 26, after two plays that worked the middle of the field, and a throw to the sideline.

That may not sound impressive, but I’m going to show you just how impressive it is. Brady got lucky with the final of the three throws to Aaron Dobson. It looked like the Patriots were going to spike the ball, but no one was over Dobson. He threw a quick pass out that gained six extra yards, but Dobson was very close to having his forward progress stopped inbounds. Before that, he hit Edelman and Collie on consecutive throws down the seam, picking up a total of 38 yards. The first play to Edelman, for 23 yards, took 20 seconds from snap to next snap. The next one, to Collie, and remember it was already run in a rushed state where they had just hurried to the line, took only 14 seconds from snap to the snap for the throw that would go to Dobson for him to get out of bounds.

I went through every play this year that met the following scenario: (a) the final score was within 8 points, (b) a team that was trailing ran a play in the final two minutes, (c) it was obvious they weren’t trying to waste time, such as completing a long pass inside the red zone with a minute remaining, and (d) the receiver was tackled inbounds and no timeout was used, and no challenge or review was made.

I’m looking for comparable plays to what New England was facing. There were only three other plays similar to the Edelman pass in terms of distance gained. Washington against Philadelphia in week 1 (27 yard gain), Detroit against Arizona in week 2 (17 yard gain), and Buffalo against Cincinnati this week, just prior to the tying touchdown (25 yard gain). The average time to next snap was 25 seconds. New England did it in 20 seconds.

The next one is even more impressive. There were 13 other plays this year that gained between 10 and 19 yards, and the team was in hurry up. They averaged 21 seconds between snaps. The Patriots did it in 14 seconds, 7 seconds faster than the average and faster than any other play in this group. Add in the spike, which occurred in 13 seconds after a completed fourth down conversion. The other spikes this year in similar circumstances took place 16 seconds between previous snap and spike. The sum of all that time, compared to what the rest of the league has done? Fifteen seconds.

Kenbrell Thompkins isn’t catching a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone on a comfortable 17 yard throw. If the Patriots just run the same sequence of plays, but take as long as the average team in hurry up mode, then the fourth down play is likely a desperation heave to the end zone, and cannot be caught inbounds short, while failing to get to the sideline.

Chandler Jones Frustrates Brees, After Aikman Has Tuned Up the Fat Lady

“This is a frustrating loss certainly for the New England Patriots here at home, a place where they just aren’t accustomed to losing.” – Troy Aikman said at the 2:10 mark, after the Patriots used their final timeout.

The Saints ran the ball twice, the first one with the clock stopped after that timeout. The second one stopped by the two minute warning. Where was someone to remind Aikman that the game was not over?

The broadcast crew realized it only when it goes to commercial break at the two minute warning, and Thom Brennaman announces “hey, wait a minute now.” It was at that point that Sean Payton went with one of his many calculated gambles in the high stakes chess match. He could run the ball up the middle, waste the clock, and punt it back on third and long. He could put the ball in Brees’ hands and pass for the first down to win it, but risk an incompletion and giving Brady an extra 35 seconds. Or, he could go with door #3, try to catch the Patriots just like Peyton Manning did against the Cowboys, going with an improbable naked bootleg.

It would have worked if not for that darn kid, Chandler Jones.

Here is the shot just as Brees is coming out of the fake handoff. Jones has his eyes on Brees and sees the fake. There is no one else on that side of the field. If he is crashing down the line and staring at the back, Brees has a good chance of ending the game. Instead, it is a five yard loss.

Tom Brady Knows When to Throw Interceptions

An interception normally ends the game this late, but if you are going to throw one, best to throw it early in the drive, before you have run time, before the two minute warning has slipped by, and before you have burned timeouts. Tom Brady knows this. No one denies it.

Brady threw a deep pass, but if it comes on the second or third play of the drive, and not the first, this comeback likely never gets as far as Thompkins.

Run, Run, Pass, Kick

The Saints got the ball, in field goal range, up by one point. The first two runs burned the Patriots first two timeouts, but left the Saints in third and long, needing a first down to ice it. Payton opted to throw for the win. It was incomplete. That’s a reasonable decision by Payton. After all, I wish I could find an example of Brady coming back to win a game, when given time.

As it turns out, the Saints would have been better served either playing for the first down right away, and putting the ball in Brees’ hands, or running it a third time, burning the final timeout, and then kicking. Of course, Brady would not have thrown that interception before the two minute warning, if he knew he was out of timeout.

“You Do What You Feel You Have to Do to Win a Football Game”  

Bill Belichick went for it on 4th and 6 at his own 24 yard line, after a previous drop by Brandon Bolden. Aaron Dobson dropped the fourth down pass, and the Saints took over. We know Belichick will go for it here, he has done it on multiple occasions in close games. The most famous, of course, was against the Colts and Peyton Manning in 2009.

How many coaches, though, would have gone for it to put the opponent in field goal range, down by only one point, with over two minutes left and all timeouts remaining?

It’s probably a population of one: Bill Belichick.

You have to have less fear of what could happen negatively, and a belief in doing what is best to win the football game. Yes, Drew Brees and the Saints got no first downs to ice the game. They also tried to burn the Patriots timeouts and the two minute timeout by running it with their non-existent power running game. They took the three points. The mad scientist knows that the difference between 1 and 4 can be a powerful siren, but is overvalued. Kickers miss all the time. Coaches fall for the trap of believing it is the safe play.

If Belichick punts there, I promise you, the Saints are thinking pick up first downs, keep Brady off the field. The ball is in Brees’ hands. The thought process is not burn timeouts, but keep the ball. Sometimes, optimal decision making becomes so because there is so much conservatism. Even another mad scientist, Sean Payton, can fall into the trap.

Coaches fear the risk of going for fourth downs. The best coach in the game was on the sidelines for the most amazing comeback because he has none, and knows that a failed fourth down does not lead to unicorns and show ponies living together.